The title of Giles Foden’s first novel refers to Idi Amin, dictator of the central African nation of Uganda from 1971 until the Tanzanian army, and his own people, drove him from power in 1979. According to Foden’s account— which seems, in many of its details, too strange not to be true— Amin once sent the following message to Queen Elizabeth “with copies to the UN Secretary-
General Doctor Kurt Waldheim, Soviet Premier Brezhnev and Mao Tse-Tung”:
Unless the Scots achieve their independence peacefully . . . they will take up arms and fight the English until they regain their freedom. Many of the Scottish people already consider me last King of the Scots. I am the first man to ask the British government to end their oppression of Scotland. If the Scots want me to be their King, I will.
Call him Bonnie Prince Idi.
At the heart of Foden’s arresting first novel is a Scot who becomes not only Amin’s willing subject, but also his personal physician and friend. Dr. Nicholas Garrigan, son of a Presbyterian minister, grows up dreaming of exotic lands and wild adventures.
[I]n my overheated adventures I played out stories of Hickok’s Wild West, Tarzan’s Africa, the Arctic of Peary and Nansen. And I, oddly, was always the Red Indian, the Zulu, the Eskimo. . . .
After medical school, he takes a foreign service exam and lands in Kampala on the very day that Amin, in a coup backed by the British and American governments, deposes Milton Obote and declares himself president— excuse me:
President for Life Field Marshal Al Hadj Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea, King of the Scots and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular.
To Garrigan, despite occasional bouts of aesthetic revulsion at the dictator’s corpulent body and moral queasiness at his genocidal policies, he’ll always be Idi.
Before his fateful dalliance with Amin, Garrigan has an affair with Sara Zach, an Israeli doctor who is also, perhaps, a spy. When she departs, it’s as if she takes his moral and political compass with her. Garrigan has a knack for bad timing; he’s a fictional character who keeps colliding with reality. At one point he halfheartedly attempts to flee Uganda and at the Entebbe airport runs into the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which has hijacked an Israeli plane and forced it to land there. (Amin’s cooperation with the terrorists provoked a legendary Israeli raid— one of whose martyrs was Jonathan Netanyahu,
elder brother of Bibi.) Uganda, by a vote of the World Zionist Congress in 1903, had been chosen as the site for a future Jewish State. The plan, luckily or not, never came off. And before Amin kicked them out hundreds of Israeli doctors and engineers had assisted in Uganda’s postcolonial development.
But while The Last King of Scotland teems with references to the political upheavals of the 1970s— coups and civil wars in Africa, violence in the Middle East, political decline and IRA bombings in Britain— it’s not really a novel of politics. Thick though it is with insight into Africa’s colonial and precolonial past, it’s not really a historical novel either. Its finely observed landscape and precisely rendered historical context form the background to a tale of nearly metaphysical evil, and the power of such evil to seduce and paralyze the weak.
The monstrosity of Amin’s capricious and brutal rule becomes apparent to Garrigan only slowly. We learn almost in passing that something like 300,000 Ugandans were slaughtered, in the most unimaginably brutal ways, during the years of Amin’s reign. And Garrigan does witness his share of horror: he sees a friend tortured to death, watches child soldiers remorselessly killing and unfeelingly killed, and stumbles on a mass grave that seems a metaphor for what his adopted country has become. A passive figure, Garrigan avoids taking action against his prize patient’s wanton cruelty. When the shadowy bureaucratic types at the British Embassy offer him a hundred thousand pounds to kill Amin, he demurs in the name of medical ethics. When, in the aftermath of Amin’s ouster, Garrigan returns home, the press accuses him of being the dictator’s accomplice; he insists that he was a victim of Amin’s murderous whims, and was in any case only doing his job.
The Last King of Scotland revisits a subject that has preoccupied writers from Joseph Conrad and Evelyn Waugh in the colonial era to William Boyd and Norman Rush in its aftermath: Africa as a moral testing ground for whites. Garrigan doesn’t so much fail the test as call in sick, but his passivity in the face of Amin’s baroque barbarism is nonetheless at the center of the book. The shadings of his character are expertly rendered, but one finishes this novel with a nagging sense of disproportion, as if the brutality visited on several million Africans were nothing more than the occasion for a Scotsman’s malaise. We’ve been to this heart of darkness before, and we could use more light.
Foden, a staff writer at The Guardian who spent much of his childhood living in Africa, succeeds in representing Idi Amin and Uganda, but at the cost of aestheticizing them. Performing his first physical on Amin, Garrigan muses:
I do wonder, in fact, how many other people have actually looked into Idi Amin’s eye: less, if I may gainsay the poets, a question of the window being open to his debatable soul than of the red cup of the retina, glazed with blood vessels, and the end of the optic nerve like a drop of milk in the center.
Ultimately, his ironic fascination will give way to melodrama: “I am transformed into a suppurating beast, someone with a smell of evil about his person. Yes, I have become him.” Foden often comes dangerously close to indulging the romantic exoticism that undoes his hero. I don’t say this to score an easy political point against a novel that is genuinely beautiful and disturbing. The elegance and assurance of execution, however, are part of what’s disturbing, especially since the political devastation of Central Africa is hardly confined to the rapidly receding past of the 1970s. Indeed, The Last King of Scotland is one of a cluster of current books on the topic: Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, a novel about the Congo crisis of the 1960s; King Leopold‘s Ghost, Adam Hochschild’s account of Belgian savagery in the Congo a hundred years earlier; and Philip Gourevitch’s unsparing chronicle of the recent Rwandan genocide, We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families. Recent events in the Democratic Republic of Congo, liberated only last year from the grotesque kleptocracy of Idi Amin’s spiritual cousin Mobuto Sese Seku, suggest that the horror is far from over.